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Mamluk era arms market falls into disrepair

The once bustling Souq Al-Selah Street lies in the heart of Islamic Cairo surrounded now by piles of refuse, as it slowly decays and slips out of the collective memory

Farah El Akkad, Tuesday 27 Sep 2011
Weaponry Souk
Weaponry Souk
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Those who forged, those who sold and those who bought the weapons have long since died, but will the old buildings of Souq Al-Selah Street (Arms Market Street) meet the same fate?

It is an interesting street: a narrow lane only 220 metres long, located to the right of Al-Rifaai Mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo. Description de l’Egypt (1798) describes its location in a semi-isolated area on the eastern side of Old Cairo, ending at Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and Al-Ghuriya district. The street, which dates back to the 8th century, was first known as Souq Al-Ezzy.

However, over the years, the popular name became Souq Al-Selah due to the numerous workshops that sold all kinds of weaponry. The street saw its golden years during the Mamluk era when it was considered the Citadel’s main source of arms. A famous Mamluk prince, Ezz El-Din Bahdar, dwelt on the street itself and was in charge of supervising the arms industry.

In his book, Egyptian Markets during the Mamluk Era (1978), Abdo Kassem describes the nature of the area. He explains that the street was a famous spot for the manufacture and sale of almost any form of weapon - from swords made of iron or bronze, to spears, shields and rifles.

At the time, people were hugely interested in procuring weapons, particularly landlords who sought them for personal protection. As weapons evolved, the industry changed and rifles began replacing its more traditional cousins.

The main gate, Manjac Gate, to the street was built in 1347 by King Meng El-Selahdar and was described in William Moyer’s book, The History of the Mamluk State in Egypt (1995), as exquisitely decorated with intricate patterns. Today it can hardly be distinguished among the piles of rubbish surrounding it. The same goes for most of the historical buildings there.

 “The street, which contains an extensive number of monuments from the Mamluk era, is now nothing but a rubbish dump.” says Mohammed El-Eskandarany, the son of a former arms workshop owner.

Despite the neglected state of the monuments, however, some mosques are still in a relatively good state. Al-Gai Al-Youssefy mosque (aka Al-Sayes), which was built by Prince Seif El-Din Al-Youssefy of the Mamluks, dates back to 774 hijri when it served as a school. It remains open for prayer to this day and is distinguished by its giant doors and large, inner courtyard that is also recalled in Description de l’Egypt.

Another important monument is Rokaya Doodoo’s drinking fountain, built in 1174 AD in honour of her mother, Badaweya Shahine. Rokaya was the granddaughter of the Mamluk Prince Radwan. The author details the fountain’s typically Mamluk copper craftsmanship in his book, The History of the Mamluk State in Egypt, as well as the copper windows encircling it.

“It comprises three main windows for drinking,” says Ahmed Shahine a former arms workshop owner, adding that it “later became a kuttab [traditional Islamic schools].”

Rokaya’s fountain remained open until the 1952 coup d’état by the Free Officers’ movement and then was sold to the government. Alas, its condition worsened over the years, as did another significant monument: Beshtak’s Bath, built by Prince Beshtak Al-Malky in 742 hijri during the Mamluk era. This monument has a happy history linked to a Mamluk wedding ceremony where the bride is perfumed and adorned and wedding rituals start.

“It was closed from public use five years ago,” says Om Bassem, daughter of a former arms workshop owner.  Souq Al-Selah Street is a treasure lying under heaps of age-old dust. It is a treasure visible only to those who can see clearly and not those who merely pass by. The street’s deep history calls for a well-deserved restoration plan - will anybody heed the call?

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